Season 9, Episode 3 “Under The Lake”
Directed by Daniel O’Hara
Written by Toby Whithouse
Starring Peter Capaldi, Jenna Coleman
Air date: Saturday, October 3, 2015
Think of a night at the opera. The crowd enters the hall, the lights go down, the orchestra plays the overture, the curtain rises, the tenor and the chorus sing the opening aria. That’s where we are at the start of “Under The Lake,” the third episode of Season 9 of the revived Doctor Who. While the last two episodes gave us first shock and awe, and then some genuine thrills, now things must start to calm down and we, the viewing audience, begin to see what we have on our hands for this season. I think the initial conclusion must be that this will be a return to certain historical series norms that were missing for the last couple seasons, and a departure from others. Ultimately, however, this episode was far too workmanlike to represent the series’ best work.
So who will the Doctor and Clara be this season? After previous appearances in a regular season episode and a Christmas special, we’ve had a season of the Matt Smith as the young, brash Doctor trying to solve the riddle of Clara Oswald, the Impossible Girl. We’ve also had a season of Peter Capaldi as a much older, less social Doctor composing one half of a very double life of Clara Oswald, teacher at Coal Hill School. While both at least tried to give more narrative weight to the Doctor’s companion by giving the companion a normal life in addition to life in the TARDIS, both of these developments messed with some long-established series norms.
The Doctor’s travels have always been somewhat random, and his adventures have often started when the TARDIS lands someplace he didn’t expect. Living a double life requires traveling with a bit more precision; now the Doctor has to show up at some very exact places and times… though Steven Moffat does at least attempt to show that the places and the times are rarely exact simultaneously. It creates a dynamic where the companion dictates the terms of the travel to the Doctor, and that’s somewhat new. When Rose Tyler come aboard the TARDIS in Season 1, it was with the expectation that she was leaving her ordinary life behind, at least for a time. It was the same for Amy Pond in Season 5.
This season appears to step away from those changes, at least for a time. Moffat said in interviews leading up to the broadcast of the season that it would be more about the Doctor and Clara just having fun. Indeed, the second Season 9 teaser trailer highlights the line “Just the same old, same old; the Doctor and Clara Oswald in the TARDIS” from “The Witch’s Familiar.” Yes, the Doctor may be appearing and disappearing from Clara’s life, but it’s something happening off camera, if this episode is any indication.
External forces may be driving this decision. Fans are not happy with some of the directions that Moffat has taken the show. There is talk that ratings slipped a bit in Britain during the last two seasons. Fortunately for the show, the BBC now has a fully-owned subsidiary in the United States and ratings for BBC America are going up and up, largely due to new episodes of Doctor Who. The series is finally going as mainstream here in the United States as it was in Britain 50 years ago. While Moffat says publicly that his bosses continue to be happy with his performance as showrunner because of this, I think there had to be a rationalization that it was time to go a little more back to basics and bring some UK fans back into the fold.
That said, we’re still seeing some new things so far this season. The TARDIS control room set is re-designed to bring the roundels back to greater prominence. The sonic screwdriver is abandoned in favor of sonic wayfarer sunglasses. This last one hits a sore spot with fans, especially longtime fans in the UK. Producer John Nathan-Turner destroyed the sonic screwdriver once before, back in 1982. The change stuck for the remainder of Nathan-Turner’s tenure as producer until the cancellation of Classic Doctor Who in 1988 and the screwdriver was not resurrected until the Paul McGann movie in 1996. There is, therefore, some association between the sonic screwdriver and the creative health of the show in the fan community. Steven Moffat acknowledges that the change is most likely impermanent, saying that “I’m sure the screwdriver will show up again someday.”
Speaking more to the specifics of this particular episode, writer Toby Whithouse offers us to another Doctor Who exercise in genre fiction. He did vampires in the aptly named “The Vampires Of Venice,” a metaphysical ode on the slasher film in “The God Complex,” and a version of the American Western in “A Town Called Mercy.” In “Under The Lake,” the tropes come straight from Egyptian mummy horror — the tomb, the sarcophagus, the temple, the curse, and the walking dead. We get a classic base under siege scenario. We also get something like a UNIT story, without any other members of UNIT showing up.
Here, we see something else new this season: the Doctor is not particularly anonymous to people on Earth. In the past, the Doctor has traditionally dealt with the human race in two ways: either as someone who is apparently human who shows up in the middle of a troublesome situation (and viewed with some suspicion) or as a troubleshooter brought in by someone in authority (mostly for UNIT stories). Here, he is really neither; when he presents telepathic paper that shows UNIT identification, he is immediately recognized by someone who is “a fan.” The last human “fan” of the Doctor outside UNIT was the conspiracy theorist Clive from the episode “Rose”; acceptance of the presence of the Doctor in human history is much more mainstream.
I couldn’t get myself to particularly like a lot of things about this episode. After two weeks of sparkling dialog from Steven Moffat, the bulk of the interplay here feels kind of flat. The characters are a bit stock, and the rabbits that the Doctor pulls from his hat feel a bit forced. Some of the details are just plain weird — building dams almost always create lakes and destroying them restores the flow of rivers, for example. Just like the premise, it mostly feels kind of formula.
There are a few bright spots. Peter Capaldi and Jenna Coleman feel settled in their roles and their characters spark fairly well of each other, even when the dialog gets a little awkward. The walking dead are creepy, though nothing like what we saw in “The Waters of Mars”. The sets and the design of the production were excellent. The use of the TARDIS in the middle of a story to drive the plot and set up a genuinely surprising cliffhanger felt fresh.
Three episodes into the season, we see that the show appears to be aiming for a more stripped down episode aesthetic. We also see an attempt to insert the Doctor into a fictional genre that the show has explored a number of times before: the Egyptian mummy horror film. The result is often serviceable if not particularly inspired. Though some may praise this episode for its conciseness and efficiency, I felt it fell just a bit flat.